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What Isn't Reported: Navigating Mental Health as a Journalist

It was 1998, I was 24 years old and barely a month into my first reporting job. On a rainy day in Toronto, as I sat in my cameraman's truck heading towards a road accident, I heard "cold storage" crackle through the police scanner indicating that the accident had resulted in a fatality—a stark initiation into the world of news—where stories were more than reports; they were real lives, real tragedies. It sounds obvious but in order to do the job well, which was to report the news about those real lives, there had to be an invisible barrier between me and the people involved otherwise the job wouldn't get done.

As a reporter in local news, I would cover murders, wait in the rain at crime scenes for hours to get a soundbite from a police sergeant, be in the midst of melées between protesters and police, knock on doors of parents who had lost a child (I hated myself for doing the latter and never did it again after the first time). I went wherever I was assigned to go. My only focus was my deadline, not my feelings. It was part of the job; a necessary hardening of oneself. And it was the job that I had wanted since I was 16 years old.

Fast forward three years to 2001. I was now at CNN, the world's biggest news network. My audience wasn't one city, it was the world. The stakes felt higher. The learning curve steeper. I had just moved to Atlanta. I didn't know anyone; no friends, no family. My newsroom would become the place in which I would work and find people with whom to socialise. My first "breaking news" event was a suicide bombing at a pizzeria in downtown Jerusalem. Images of blood and mangled wreckage, people panicking were on every screen in the newsroom. And there were many screens. By the time it got to my shift to anchor, I had already seen the footage dozens of times over and over again. The only thing I felt was the nerves and adrenaline to make sure I didn't screw up and say the wrong thing.

Working in news, especially at CNN, breaking news would become a regular occurrence. Shortly after that suicide bombing, 9/11 happened. I had finished my overnight shift at around 5am on the morning of September 11th. I went home, crawled into bed and was woken up to the phone ringing 3 hours later. I went straight into the office where I would stay for approximately 12 hours watching those screens displaying the disbelief, the shock, the smoke, the ash, the grief. I came back to my apartment where I lived alone and felt so empty. I kept picturing the images of people holding photographs of loved ones that were missing, assumed to be in the wreckage of the Twin Towers, but hoping with every fibre of their being they would be found. I told myself I had no right to feel sorry for myself after all, people had it much worse. Much, much worse.

9/11, the war in Afghanistan, the second Gulf War, the Asian Tsunami, the London bombings, numerous natural disasters, plane crashes, missing planes, genocide, kidnapping and beheadings--these were all stories I covered as an anchor. My job was to take in the information and communicate it to the viewers in a clear, concise manner. I would hold the ship steady while chaos erupted around me as the newsroom staff did their jobs to verify and produce the newscasts. There was no time to really think about anything other than the job. There was certainly no time to feel. Compartmentalisation was a skill I perfected. And if you were to say I had it easier than the foreign correspondents, producers, and camerapeople who were out in the field witnessing terror and death first hand, you would be 100% right. But maybe it isn't about easier. Maybe it's about different.

For journalists in the newsroom producing, writing scripts, editing images, anchoring shows continuously witnessing extremely distressing images for hours on end, day in and day out, without having a healthy counterbalance (be it friends, family, personal life) takes its toll.

For some, the toll comes in the form of vicarious trauma.

Understanding Vicarious Trauma:

'Vicarious trauma' is a term coined by psychotherapists Laurie Anne Pearlman and Paula S. McCann in 1995 who studied what the impact of treating victims of violence was having on the therapists themselves. They defined vicarious trauma as "the transformation that occurs within the therapist (or other trauma worker)-as a result of empathic engagement with clients' trauma experiences and their sequelae. Such engagement includes listening to graphic descriptions of horrific events, bearing witness to people's cruelty to one another, and witnessing and participating in traumatic reenactments."

The mental health charity 'Mind' outlines how journalists could be exposed to vicarious trauma in these ways:

  • Interviewing survivors of trauma

  • Hearing distressing testimony

  • Researching stories, both written and visual

  • Encountering violent images online

  • Witnessing the aftermath of traumatic incidents

  • Fact-checking, misinformation and disinformation

  • Online harassment

How vulnerable a person may become to the images they see and the words they write, how susceptible they might be to vicarious trauma will depend on the individual which is a long way of saying that in any given newsroom, organisation, company, you never know what someone is carrying.

PTSD however refers to someone who has experienced or witnessed trauma first hand. Reporters are like first responders--they run towards disasters when everyone is told to stay away. Foreign correspondents, cameramen, producers, who are among some of the bravest people I know, have witnessed up close humanity at its worst. They are also like the soldiers deployed to war.

Like soldiers, journalists are not immune to PTSD and there have been many for whom the trauma witnessed in the field left an indelible mark on them. It would manifest in various ways such as addictions, an inability to truly engage in their every day life away from work, disastrous relationships, and a deep need to go back into the darkness of disaster almost as if by witnessing other people's grief it would soothe their own.

The photojournalist Jimmy Nelson said in an interview with Mo Gawdat that his career choice was a trauma response: "I wasn't a photojournalist. I was a broken human being with a camera disappearing into other people's pain to alleviate my own." For him, being everywhere else meant he didn't have to deal with what he would inevitably feel when he stood still. And Michael Ware, the former CNN correspondent who travelled to war zones for the network for 6 years described in an interview with the New York Times the discomfort he felt whenever he would return home from being in the field saying, It’s a struggle to learn how to fit back in and yet, that’s precisely what’s expected of you — to fit back in.” Ware said he would also feel the stress of the company needing him back in the conflict zones despite still suffering from PTSD.

Support Systems: Lacking but Essential

The reality is most people, regardless of what industry they work in, don't feel they have a safe space to talk about what they're going through without feeling embarrassed or judged, or worse, fear they will lose their job. Witnessing death and destruction, even from afar, was, and still is, part of the job. But what I and my colleagues always held on to was the incredible pride for the jobs we had, the gratitude we felt for the opportunities, the weight of responsiblity of the roles we had, and the fear that it could all be taken away.

You see it isn't just the harrowing images and stories that can erode the mental health of journalists; it is also the relentless environment, the toxic culture in some newsrooms, the consistent inhumane hours over many years, and the lack of empathy for some who express a concern or a need for personal time, and not even being allowed to say 'no'.

Burnout is real. Many journalists continue to push through signs of burnout because of a deep-seated passion for their craft and a sense of duty to their vocation & their purpose. There is also the reality of not wanting to be seen as unable to do the job at hand.

All of this puts our bodies under immense strain. When we are on alert our brain's "fight or flight" mode kicks in. Adrenaline and cortisol levels are raised enabling us to respond accordingly. When those hormone levels are always raised it can have damaging long-term consequences that include:

  • Anxiety.

  • Depression.

  • Sleep problems.

  • Problems with memory and focus.

  • Heart disease, heart attack, high blood pressure and stroke.

So what's the solution?

First and foremost: awareness, compassion, and understanding.

What does that look like in a newsroom? Mind puts it this way:

  • Training for editors and managers to recognize signs of mental fatigue in their teams and understand how to address it effectively.

  • Creating a culture of openness about mental health challenges, where seeking help is encouraged and not stigmatised.

  • Providing Resources: Ensure that mental health resources, such as counseling and therapy, are readily available and encouraged for use. Organisations like The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma offer guidelines and support for news professionals. Some newsrooms already have psychologists with whom they work with regularly.

  • Implementing Regular Check-Ins: Establish routine check-ins for mental health, similar to safety briefings in other high-risk professions. This can normalize the conversation around mental health and ensure it remains a priority.

People who join the industry actually want to be in it; they want to do the work; they want to be a valued member of a team that is doing important work. When staff are seen through that lens of respect, they will be treated that way too. No one wants to be sick. No one wants to be signed off. What they want is kindness, understanding, and an openness to the very human response to the human experience.

A study on vicarious (or secondary) trauma in first responders, published by the European Journal of Pyschotraumatology in 2019, found "resilience factors that prevent first responders from developing symptoms of secondary traumatisation. One of the most researched protective factors is social support." Social support. Being seen and heard. And respected.

The expectation that journalists should simply "suck it up and move on" is both archaic and unhealthy. It's crucial to recognize that emotional responses to traumatic events, whether they manifest as deep impact or numbness, are natural human reactions—not indicators of weakness. Everyone processes trauma differently; some may appear unaffected, while others struggle significantly.

Effective management in a newsroom requires a culture of universal acceptance and support. It is essential to provide a safe space where journalists can discuss their feelings and experiences openly, especially in a high-stakes environment. It is important to know that everyone comes into the newsroom with their own story--whether it is that of loneliness because they have moved to a new city or they are going though a divorce, their child or parent may be ill, or they're grappling with an illness of their own. Any of these can impact how a person processes what they see, read, or write. There also needs to be a continuous conversation about workflow, shift patterns, and how it all impacts staff health and wellbeing.

The reality is if we are given the space to be who we are, to talk to someone about what we're going through, and just know we are respected and supported in every way, we develop the resilience we need to do the job at hand. Some of that resilience comes down to personal responsibility too. The American Psychological Association outlines the four core factors that help to develop and strengthen our resilience outside of the newsroom. They are:

  • connection

  • wellness

  • healthy thinking

  • meaning

  • Connection: create and curate your tribe, people who understand you and who you can trust. Having that kind of support in your life is not just important it helps you to feel supported and most importantly, not alone. You can join groups through classes or hobbies you may have.

  • Wellness: take care of your physical health. Eat well. See your body as the vessel that will enable you to live the kind of life you actually want and help you feel good about who you are. In times of stress it is very easy to fall into the trap of eating fast food or drinking alcohol to help take the edge off the day. But we all know the sated feelings are short term. Exercise. Spend time in nature. Sleep. I cannot state the importance of this enough. Getting quality sleep will be your saviour. It will help you feel strong, it will clear your mind, it will heal your body, and it will give you that perspective that you need.

  • Healthy thinking: Be kind to yourself. How we think about ourselves, the language we use has a huge impact on our ability to navigate our way through challenges and change. Understand that our self worth is not defined by our job nor should anything job-related negatively impact our self worth. Work with a therapist who can help you understand and manage your stress and when you feel overwhelmed by work and life. When I started seeing my therapist my world changed. To this day, I still hear her calming and encouraging voice every time I am in a challenging emotional space. Work with a life coach*. If you are feeling mentally healthy but still grapple with your mindset or you have a desire to change things in your life, a coach can help you identify what it is you want and how to get it, while keeping you accountable. This helps you feel lighter, motivated, and excited about your career.

  • Meaning: find what gives you that reason to wake up every morning (beyond paying the bills). When we have a larger purpose in life, whether it is family, helping others, or knowing that the job we have actually has meaning in a greater context, it helps to pull us through the darker times. Take a proactive approach to your life by defining goals, boundaries, identifying what is in your control and what isn't, seeing your life and career as your responsibility and duty to enhance and protect.

*A life coach should always refer you to a therapist if they believe what you're feeling is beyond their scope of expertise and requires medical attention.

I was fortunate enough to not feel the debilitating effects of vicarious trauma but I did feel my resilience was deeply impacted by the toxicity of the culture that surrounded me. I had to learn to respect my physcial and mental health the hard way. I had a few serious illnesses that I feel were directly linked to my unhealthy environment and lifestyle. I remember lying in hospital beds wondering why I was continuing to put myself through it all. But when I learned those lessons, I knew what was no longer negotiable for me. It's different for everyone but when you learn what your non-negotiables are, you are evolving into a person who really knows and trusts themselves. For me, it has resulted in an immense feeling of freedom, confidence, and a true knowing that can only come through experience.

A lot has changed since I was last in a newsroom and definitely since I was a young reporter. The younger generation of journalists is much more vocal about their need for support and a smoother integration of work and life. And they will look elsewhere if their current employer doesn't offer what they need. Remember, journalism is more than a job; it's a commitment often fraught with personal sacrifice due to its unpredictable nature. It's a calling that requires empathy, resilience, and above all, support. Having the support of peers, editors, supervisors, and the executive teams who set the tone and culture in the newsroom can have a profound impact on their ability to do their job well. Remember, a journalist's skill to recognise vulnerability and to tell stories with empathy comes from their ability to feel their own vulnerability and know it is safe to do so.


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